Euphoniums: The Forgotten Instrument

If you didn’t spend a lot of time in the band room growing up, it’s very possible that you’ve never heard of the euphonium.

This instrument is powerful and popular enough to be used in military concert bands—but what exactly is it?

HISTORY OF THE EUPHONIUM

The euphonium is a brass wind instrument similar in appearance to the tuba. Its name is derived from the Greek word “euphonos,” which roughly translates to “sweet sounding.” It is likely that the euphonium has its origins in a fascinating instrument called a serpent, which got its name from its twisting, snake-like appearance. The serpent was used in classical music for approximately 300 years  and was used in pieces by many famous musicians, including Beethoven. However, it was a notoriously difficult instrument to play, and eventually evolved to become a solo instrument called an ophicleide.

It wasn’t until 1843 that the euphonium as we know it today was finally invented by Sommer of Weimar, although it was originally called a euphonion. As this instrument developed, it became increasingly popular as a military instrument throughout the United States and Europe. In 1870, Japan formed its own military band and employed two euphonium players. Now, over a century later, the United States Army band still hosts euphonium workshops. This instrument skyrocketed to popularity, even being called “indispensable” by the son of famous conductor Edwin Franko Goldman.  

However, the nomenclature of this instrument is frequently unclear, with different countries referring to similar instruments by different names—in Spain, for example, it is called a “bombadino,” while in France it is a “clarion-basse.” In the United States in particular, the euphonium is often referred to interchangeably with the baritone due to their similar appearance and sound. However, because the euphonium is slightly larger, it has a richer, more powerful sound than the baritone. The euphonium is also generally more conical in shape than the baritone. While they may look very similar, the euphonium is more difficult to play and is generally considered an advanced instrument, due partially to the fact that it is a four-valved, rather than three-valved, instrument.

HOW DOES THE EUPHONIUM WORK?

The euphonium consists of brass tubing that can be separated and stored in two pieces. The tubing is generally shaped so that the bell of the euphonium faces upwards, sitting parallel to the musician’s face when it is being played. The euphonium has a deep-cupped mouthpiece, which the musician buzzes their lips into in order to produce sound. 

To play the euphonium, the instrument is generally supported by the left arm while the right hand rests on the valves. By pressing on the valves, the musician alters the sound created by their breath. 

WHAT DOES THE EUPHONIUM SOUND LIKE?

The euphonium is generally pitched in B flat, and falls in the tenor-bass range. It has a deep, rich sound that lends itself to darker, more emotional musical pieces, although it can also be used very effectively in brighter pieces such as “The Carnival of Venice,” performed here by David Childs. While it is not frequently found in pop music, the euphonium is still used frequently in modern classical pieces and military bands. This performance by Anthony Caillet is an excellent demonstration of the powerful, emotional sound produced by a skilled euphonium player.

This instrument is all too often forgotten, overlooked, or misnamed. People refer to it as a baritone or a tuba, or, more frequently, have simply never heard of it at all. However, it is a truly powerful instrument, and its deep sound can lend a richness to music that is unparalleled.